My two Japanese ‘comrades’: Saha Group chairman’s story (25)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 25 of a 30-part series.

I have become acquainted with many Japanese business leaders through joint ventures and collaborations. I consider Tadao Yoshida, founder of zipper maker YKK, Torajiro and Atsushi Kobayashi of toiletries maker Lion, and Koichi Tsukamoto, founder of lingerie maker Wacoal my business mentors.

Here I would like to introduce two more comrades whom I cannot forget.

One is Yuichi Nakashima, former chairman of condiment maker Kewpie. I met him for the first time at Kewpie’s Tokyo headquarters when we launched a joint venture in 1987. As he was 16 years my senior, I think he was 66 at the time. He was a quiet gentleman and neither of us talked much, but we could talk frankly.

Out of a love for Thailand, Nakashima-san used to attend the shareholders meeting of our joint venture every year. He came all the way from Japan to Thailand to attend the wedding of my niece, the daughter of my younger brother Boonkiet, president of the joint venture, on Nov. 11, 1999.

He also had a great interest in Thai food. Among others, he was a big fan of pak choi, or coriander, a strong, distinctive-smelling herb. He would always ask for extra pak choi and surprise the Thais who were present.

Both sons of company founders, we had similar views on how family business should be run. When he passed away in 2008 I attended his funeral in Tokyo to bid him farewell.

I used to eat Kewpie’s mayonnaise often when I worked in Osaka, but mayonnaise was little known in Thailand because Western food was still new to many Thais. Some years later I proposed creating a joint venture through Kewpie’s purchasing officer, who came to Thailand to buy ingredients.

What was incredible about Nakashima-san was that he never sought quick results. I assume the situation was the same in Japan when mayonnaise was first introduced in the country.

He expected that it would take time before mayonnaise would be accepted by many Thai people. He continued to make products on contract for other companies to keep the joint venture afloat. The company produced the ketchup used at McDonald’s in Thailand, coleslaw for Kentucky Fried Chicken and liquid seasonings, including soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

After many years of patience, mayonnaise became a staple of Thai food and the joint venture grew into a high-dividend, blue-chip company.

Another important business figure for me is Makoto Iida, founder of Japanese security company Secom. We have a couple of things in common. He is four years my senior, which makes us almost in the same generation. I’m 6 feet (183 cm) tall and Iida-san is about the same height as me.

In 1987, Iida-san came to Thailand as a member of the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Wacoal’s Tsukamoto-san, chairman of the Chamber introduced him, saying, “There is an interesting guy.”

Secom was a startup back then. He explained his company’s business model of “mechanized security” in a very straightforward manner. I was surprised by his innovative idea of computerizing the labor-intensive security business.

The phrase Iida-san used: that “Secom’s business has a long runway,” also struck me as a fan of planes. Iida-san meant to say that it would take time before his company turned a profit. But I had just turned 50 and was dying to give this challenging new business a try. I asked Iida-san to start a joint venture in 1988.

As Iida-san predicted, the runway was long indeed. The business has finally turned profitable over the past 10 years or so. But it was meaningful that Saha Group, which had sold goods for many years, tapped into the service industry for the first time.

Although Iida-san is very fond of spicy food, he hasn’t come to Thailand very often. Yet, he always takes time out to see me when I come to Japan. We haven’t talked business very much in recent years, but meeting him in person and shaking hands is a very precious time for me.

This column is part of The Nikkei’s “My Personal History” (“Watashi no Rirekisho”) series of autobiographies. The series first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication.


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